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Stealing Black Culture

Afra Ahmed, Special Features Editor

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Starting as just a week and then evolving into the entirety of February, Black History month is a time for highlighting the achievements and struggles of black folk.

This is especially important given the Eurocentricity of our history courses, where black history is rarely acknowledged.

But for many of us, any acknowledgement of the accomplishments of black figures and the systematic challenges black people face starts and ends with Black History Month.

And usually this acknowledgment is posting a single picture of Martin Luther King Jr. accompanied by some generic quote about peaceful resistance.

The truth is, even when we do recognize black history, we subject black icons to whitewashing.

“I’m not racist for not supporting Black Lives Matter, I love Martin Luther King Jr!” says the same person who pegs black men and women as terrorists when they demand the simple right to not be shot at.

“When I look at Muhammad Ali, I don’t see color or religion, he truly transcended race to become something great.”

Because apparently in order for a black person to be successful and revered by non-black people, they must distance themselves from blackness and “transcend” their race. (Funnily enough we never seem to say that famous white people “transcended their race,” maybe because success and whiteness are an expected combination).

When we’re not unapologetically whitewashing black icons, we are acting as hypocrites, saying that we admire the many black men and women of the past for their groundbreaking work, yet continuing to silence and harm the black men and women of the present.

In order to be better allies, we need to acknowledge the structural violence black people face every day; not only by celebrating the achievements of Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, but by giving today’s black folks our attention when they speak of their experiences.  

Just because you don’t say the n word or don’t use physical violence against black people does not mean that you’re not at all responsible for perpetuating oppression.

One way in which we unknowingly perpetuate oppression is by appropriating (a.k.a. stealing) black culture. Ever noticed how quick we are to wear cornrows (no Becky, those aren’t boxer braids, those are cornrows) and do the Harlem Shake but still fall silent at the very mention of Black Lives Matter?

Bo Derek, Miley Cyrus, Kylie Jenner, Katy Perry, the list of white celebrities praised for wearing Black hairstyles is endless.

At the same time media is praising non-black celebrities for making century old hairstyles “new” and “chic,” black people are told that their natural hair is not professional enough (read as “not European enough”) for school and the workforce.

Over and over again we demonstrate that we love black culture and black aesthetics – just without black people. Thick lips, big butts and long acrylic nails are all trendy fashion statements for white women, but on black women they are seen as undesirable.

When MAC posted a picture of Ugandan model Aamito Lagum’s lips on Instagram, the comments section was filled with racist comments mocking Lagum for her full lips. Meanwhile, Kylie Jenner’s equally large lips are so praised that people started a lip plumping challenge in her name.

If someone were to ask you who invented twerking, you would probably think first of Miley Cyrus rather than the black men and women of 1990s New Orleans who drew from West African dance to contemporize it in the age of bounce music.

Cyrus’ cooption of twerking in addition to her fetishization of black women as oversexualized-backup-dancer-human-props shows how black aesthetics are used by non-blacks to gain them popularity while black people are relegated to the side.

And then there’s the problem with our treatment of Black slang. Many people have the incorrect idea that African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, is unsophisticated, grammatically incorrect English.

In fact, AAVE is a dialect full of grammatical rules, just like any other English dialect. And speaking AAVE definitely doesn’t make you uneducated or poor, that’s just an assigned stereotype that hurts black people.

Yet somehow it’s cool to degrade AAVE and to simultaneously use it on a daily basis without even acknowledging it. Ratchet, squad, fleek, bae, basic, salty, shade, extra, I could go on all day about all the different words derived from AAVE we use.

One of the oldest and most prominent examples of people stealing black culture is through music. Elvis is hailed as the “king of rock and roll,” despite the genre being created by black musicians who drew from preexisting genres of music created by black people.

Similarly, the movie La La Land stars Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist white savior figure striving to rescue the genre from contemporization. Other than the movie’s antagonist being John Legend, black people are only present as background characters, which is strange since the movie centers around jazz, a genre born from the experiences and creativity of black Americans.

But it’s not all bad news. The movie Hidden Figures was not only a huge box office success, but also told a very important story that brought to the forefront the black women responsible for putting the first astronaut into orbit in the 60s.

Whereas we have long been erasing and taking credit for the achievements of black folk, Hidden Figures highlights the achievements of black women in STEM, giving credit back to them for their monumental work that has too long gone unacknowledged.

Just as black history is always at risk of erasure, black culture is always subject to erasure and cooption by us non-black folk.

It may feel like all these small acts of appropriation are meaningless, that we should be focusing on “more important issues.” After all, you ask, how harmful could a hairstyle be?

Maybe if our cooption of black culture didn’t result in the dehumanization and fetisization of black people, we could treat dreadlocks or cornrows or afros as “just hairstyles.”

Maybe if we, in the words of Amandla Stenberg, “loved black people as much as black culture,” Miley Cyrus’s twerking or Kim Kardashian’s “boxer braids” would be meaningless shows of appreciation.

But right now, our constant appropriation isn’t a sign of appreciation, it’s proof of a terrifying dichotomy- our simultaneous love and fear of blackness, and it’s something we should be trying to change.

Happy Black History month everyone.

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The School Newspaper of Presentation High School.
Stealing Black Culture